Democrats are pushing speedy passage of legislation that would impose disclosure requirements on groups that spend money to influence elections. But opponents are calling it a partisan bill written to help shield dozens of vulnerable Democratic incumbents who stand to lose their seats in November.
The law was written in response to a Supreme Court ruling that lifted a ban on individuals, corporations, labor unions and interest groups from trying to influence elections.
"The anti-incumbent wave is crashing across America and therefore the Democrats who are in power, who will be taking the brunt of that feeling in November, are trying to blunt as much of it as they can and therefore mitigate their losses," said David Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, which successfully challenged the ban on corporate campaign spending before the Supreme Court.
Democrats in the House and Senate say they want the bill signed into law in time to influence the upcoming elections. The legislation was written by two lawmakers who have been closely involved with helping Democrats win more seats. In the Senate, the lead sponsor is Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is head of the Senate Democratic Caucus but most recently helmed their fundraising arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Identical legislation was introduced in the House by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
No Senate Republicans would agree to co-sponsor the bill, though in the House, Democrats picked up two moderate GOP backers.
Advocates said the bill will allow voters to follow the money that corporations, unions and other organizations could otherwise spend anonymously on campaign ads and other methods of promoting favored candidates or denouncing ones they don't like.
The legislation was written with the help of President Obama, who denounced the ruling at his February State of the Union address as the justices sat just a few feet away.
"If we don't act quickly to confront this ruling, we will have let the Supreme Court predetermine the outcome of next November's elections," Schumer said. "It won't be Republicans or Democrats, it will be corporate America and other special interests."
But Republicans say the bill is written to give Democrats the advantage this November. Disclosure provisions would require politically active groups to list all donors, leaving them vulnerable to potential retribution from powerful incumbents.
It also includes language that would entitle candidates to the lowest advertising rate to respond to a negative ad against them.
"If people can discourage negative ads, it almost always benefits incumbents," said Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
Smith said the bill goes even further to protect Democratic interests by excluding unions and nonprofit groups from a provision banning donations from government contractors and U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies.
But Republicans may have a hard time arguing against a law intended to improve disclosure, said Jonathan Krasno, a political science professor at New York's Binghamton University.
"There is a very clear populist story to be told here," Krasno said. "If Exxon wants to spend a lot of money on a campaign and the Supreme Court says we can't stop them, then we should at least know who they are."